Although former President Barack Obama kept a low profile during most of the Trump era, he has reemerged recently — voicing his support for former Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election and lambasting President Donald Trump's botched response to the coronavirus crisis. Now, with the U.S. being rocked by protests and civil unrest following the horrifying May 25 death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, Obama is speaking out in a June 1 article published in Medium.
"As millions of people across the country take to the streets and raise their voices in response to the killing of George Floyd and the ongoing problem of unequal justice," Obama writes, "many people have reached out asking how we can sustain momentum to bring about real change. Ultimately, it's going to be up to a new generation of activists to shape strategies that best fit the times. But I believe there are some basic lessons to draw from past efforts that are worth remembering."
Obama goes on to applaud the majority of protestors as peaceful while calling out the "small minority of folks" who have resorted to violence.
"The waves of protests across the country represent a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States," Obama asserts. "The overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible and inspiring. They deserve our respect and support, not condemnation — something that police in cities like Camden and Flint have commendably understood. On the other hand, the small minority of folks who've resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk."
The former president notes, for example, that he "saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed."
During a large protest at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on May 30, two young female African-American protestors — both supporters of Black Lives Matter — had a friendly but passionate debate about the merits of voting. One argued that the best way to honor Floyd's memory and bring about badly needed change is to vote and get involved in government; the other responded that the United States is so inherently oppressive of African-Americans that voting is futile. Obama, in his article, is clearly of the view that voting is both necessary and beneficial.
"I've heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time," Obama explains. "I couldn't disagree more. The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it's only in response to protest that the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities. But eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands."
Obama stresses that from a criminal justice standpoint, political involvement at the local level is crucial because "it's mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions" and "it's district attorneys and state's attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct."
Going forward, Obama asserts, Americans who want to see positive change will need to be both voters and protestors.
"So, the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn't between protest and politics," Obama writes. "We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform."